Social psychologist Roy Baumeister has defined self-control as a “moral muscle” that can become fatigued through overexertion. Like any other muscle, our ability to exercise self-control has limits. For example, we can’t expect to put ourselves in compromising situations time after time without eventually giving in to temptation. And we need to give ourselves regular breaks from daily challenges and responsibilities — time to relax and recharge our willpower, as it were.
However, we can also engage in a regular exercise regimen to strengthen our moral muscle. I like to call such exercise “moderate asceticism.” We typically associate asceticism with the radical self-denial and otherworldly lifestyle of monks and hermits. But I believe moderate forms of asceticism should have an important place in each of our lives. These practices might not only be appropriate, but essential in cultivating true self-mastery.
It’s interesting that our English word “asceticism” is derived from the Greek word ἄσκησις (pronounced askesis), which originally meant training or exercise, specifically athletic training. If we bring both the ancient and modern meanings together, we might suggest that just as an athlete needs to train his or her mind and body to reach the highest level of competition, we all need to train our minds and bodies to acquire cardinal virtues such as practical wisdom and self-mastery. This is the kind of training that’s not just for addicts and others who need therapy. It’s for all of us who are committed to developing self-mastery a few small steps at a time.
Here are ten practical examples of moderate asceticism that I encourage you to try on a regular basis.
- Every month or so, consider fasting for 24 hours, skipping a couple of meals and spending time focusing on the needs of your soul more than the needs of your body. Donate the food or the money you would have spent on food to a local food bank for needy families.
- Wake up early in the morning every day for two weeks. Whether it’s 4, 5, or 6 am, wake up at the same time every morning, regardless of when you go to sleep. Spend some time meditating, reflecting on your life’s purpose, and planning for the day. If you’re a man or woman of religious faith, spend a few minutes each morning in earnest prayer.
- Strictly limit your technology and media consumption for an entire week. You might consider limiting your use of the Internet and email to your time at work. Use your time at home to engage in old-fashioned activities such as playing board games with the family, reading, and having face-to-face conversations.
- Lock up your credit cards for an entire month and limit purchases to your essential needs. At the end of the month, give all of your surplus budget away to charity.
- Take a cold shower every morning for a week.
- Regularly go through your closet and remove a few items of clothing that you haven’t worn in a long time. Give them away to a local thrift store. Keep doing this every few weeks until you begin to feel that your life has been simplified. Try the same exercise with other material possessions in your life.
- If you haven’t developed the habit of exercising regularly, set aside one week to begin such a habit. Choose a time to engage in vigorous exercise every day for that entire week.
- Devote an hour each day to learning a foreign language. Fill the entire hour with rigorous, focused study and practice.
- Cancel your leisure activities for two weekends in a row. Spend those weekends instead volunteering at a soup kitchen or other community service program.
- Commit yourself to a strict one-week diet, limiting your calories by one-third, eliminating sweets, and avoiding all fast food restaurants.
Any one of these practices will improve your moral conditioning and make you more capable of achieving excellence in the things that really matter in your life.
* For more insights on self-mastery and the other cardinal virtues, check out my book, The Character Cure: Four Cornerstone Virtues for a More Fulfilling Life.